Two of the cardinal rules of a happy internet existence are these: Never talk politics and never talk religion. (Also never click on unknown links. Also never do a google image search without turning on the filters. Also spelling still counts.)
But increasingly it seems that the Never Talk Religion rule only applies to those of us who are quietly and devoutly religious. Those who aren't have free reign to criticize, to mock, and to otherwise devalue faith. (Which isn't to say the majority does this--it's a vocal minority, of course, since I believe most people are thoughtful and respectful.) (And of course you have those that are militantly religious and devote whole websites to spreading vitriol and condemning others, which, I'm not quite sure which Christianity they believe in, because it's not mine.) (And, again, not to say that Christianity is the only religion that has this type of polarizing effect.) (You see why this is hard? SO MANY DISCLAIMERS. I should have a lawyer write it up.)
I've been noticing more issues of faith and religion in YA. A book I read that did it very well is Rae Carson's GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS. The main character has a life deeply rooted in faith. Everyone around her believes in the same religion to varying degrees (some will kill for it, some dismiss it as merely their cultural heritage). When she finds out that some of the things she was taught aren't doctrinal and when some of her prayers are not answered the way she feels they should be, she questions her relationship to the religion. But her faith, that core thing that drives her, remains an active and vivid part of her life. I loved that aspect of the book. I thought it was so balanced and well-done because it was as complex and difficult as it should have been. No one was "good" or "bad." There was no scapegoat, no simplified, easy blame. Religious characters were neither malicious enforcers nor mindless sheep.
Too often religious people are thrown in for an easy villain. See how narrow-minded they are! See how they are willing to go against their own beliefs in the name of making other people believe them! Or people who are religious are naive and trusting to the point of sheer idiocy. "Well, sure, bad things are happening and the only logical explanation is that it's our leader, but I have faith! It must be something else!"
As a person of faith, I find both insulting. I don't mindlessly follow what my religion teaches. I study it. I understand it. I decide for myself what to believe and what to act on. Yes, some people use religion to manipulate and control. It happens, absolutely. But give me a reason why in the book other than that it's an easy storytelling choice. Carrie Ryan's THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH is an example of when this works. The religious establishment in the novel was made for survival. The choices of the leaders made sense in context, even if they weren't right and the main character disagreed with them. It didn't feel like scapegoating or lazy storytelling. Terry Pratchett's NATION ultimately comes down against organized religion, but it does so in a thoughtful and respectful manner. It recognizes, like Ryan's book, that there are no easy answers.
It's a hard balance to find. I'll admit that the difference between a book that addresses these issues and works and one that doesn't is often impossible to define. (And I've yet to touch religion in my writing because it terrifies me--too many ways to mess it up!) But I think it comes down to respect. Respect for people and their choices. Respect for those who choose faith even if you disagree with it. Respect for those who don't choose faith even if you do.
Religion does not make anyone inherently better or worse than anyone else, just like atheism or agnosticism. It's what you do with what you choose to believe, it's the person you let it shape you into, it's your choices--your informed, intelligent, compassionate choices. Both in real life and in stories, look beyond the "easy" assumptions. Go deeper.
I go to church for three hours every Sunday. I study the scriptures daily. Prayer is a part of my life. My faith has shaped the person I am, and I honestly don't think I'd be a storyteller without it. I'm glad I was raised with it, but I still choose to believe, choose to have faith, choose to act on that faith. It's an active choice, one that I constantly work on and think about and decide for myself.
I don't care what you choose, as long as you use the life you are given (regardless of where you think that life came from or whether you think there's anything after) in the best way you can. I respect the choices and beliefs of those around me, and I hope that reflects in my writing. Please don't make uninformed, stereotyped decisions, or group everyone into categories based on what you think of one part of them. That's bigotry, plain and simple, whether it's based on religion, race, sexuality, or gender. Do me the honor of looking beyond my specific belief system to the person I am and what I do with it.
I'll do the same for you.